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The concerning case of Elizabeth Workman

Hung in Sarnia for murdering her husband Cathy Dobson Local historian and author Bob McCarthy was finishing the last of three public talks to mark the 150th anniversary of the hanging of Elizabeth Workman at the Sarnia jail, when a man raised his han
Author and researcher Bob McCarthy appealing for a review of the Elizabeth Workman case from 1873. (Cathy Dobson photo)

Hung in Sarnia for murdering her husband

Cathy Dobson

Local historian and author Bob McCarthy was finishing the last of three public talks to mark the 150th anniversary of the hanging of Elizabeth Workman at the Sarnia jail, when a man raised his hand and surprised everyone there.

“My name is Jim Workman,” he said, then suggested he might be a descendent of Elizabeth Workman who, in 1873, was found guilty by a Sarnia jury of murdering her husband, James Workman.

That would be news for McCarthy who has found only one descendent in all his years of research into what he calls an unfair conviction and hanging. And that shed no light.

Elizabeth Workman is the only woman ever found guilty and executed under Canadian law following a trial where the judge or jury recommended mercy.

McCarthy has carefully researched her case and written several books about it after examining the trial papers and finding evidence that Elizabeth Workman was a victim of domestic abuse.

The trial transcript from the court proceedings in Sarnia described Elizabeth Workman as “a sober industrious woman of good character who worked hard to support her husband and child though often deprived by her husband of her earnings as soon as obtained.”

It went on to say that James Workman, her husband, “often forcibly took the earnings of his wife and spent it in drunkenness and debauchery and often beat and threatened the life of his said wife.”

That in itself, is evidence enough to suggest Elizabeth Workman was abused and may have killed James Workman in self-defence when he was in a drunken rage, said McCarthy.

It’s a premise that he believes is plausible. He also thinks it’s possible that the Workman’s nine-year-old son may have killed his father and that Elizabeth was “taking the rap for him.”

The fact that Workman never confessed to the death of her husband and never had a chance during her trial to testify or call any witnesses on her behalf, further convinces McCarthy that she deserves justice now.

He used the 150th anniversary of her execution at the old Sarnia jail on Christina Street as an opportunity to publicize the case and draw attention to the trauma of domestic violence.

It was an issue in 1873 and it’s still an issue, McCarthy said. “Abuse of women is not a new problem. The jury said, we think she’s guilty but shouldn’t be executed. The jury asked for mercy.”

Bob McCarthy signs copies of his book “Case 666” at The Sarnia Book Keeper Monday night on the 150th anniversary of the hanging of Elizabeth Workman. (Cathy Dobson photo)

In fact, 1,500 local men and 60 women signed a petition asking for clemency. Even Sarnia MP Alexander MacKenzie, Sarnia’s mayor and Lambton County council pleaded for Elizabeth Workman to be spared. But no mercy was shown.

When she was hung on June 19, 1873 in the same location as Wagg’s Restaurant today, her body was dropped in a hole dug below. McCarthy believes it is still there.

At all three presentations Monday – at St. Andrew’s Church, at Mooretown library and at The Book Keeper - he asked for signatures on a new petition that he hopes will be presented to Governor General Mary Simon. It asks that the government review Elizabeth Workman’s case. Copies of the petition are still available at The Book Keeper at Northgate Plaza.

And what about Jim Workman’s surprise appearance Monday evening?

He believes there’s a good chance he’s a descendent of the tragic couple.

“My relatives were in Sombra as early as 1845 and that’s not far from Mooretown where Elizabeth and James lived,” said Jim.

Does he believe she’s innocent? Not one bit.

“I think she did it,” he said. “Maybe she didn’t deserve to die, but what are you going to do about it now?”

Jennifer Vanstennkiste, executive director of the Women’s Interval Home of Sarnia-Lambton.

You can do exactly what Bob McCarthy is doing, says Jennifer Vansteenkiste, executive director of the Women’s Interval Home, which received a donation from McCarthy’s events Monday.

She was among 30 or so at The Book Keeper.

“Elizabeth Workman’s story indicates some financial abuse and some emotional abuse and, potentially, physical abuse too,” said Vansteenkiste.

“That really (reflects) the layers of abuse we see when we’re dealing with our clients.”

Most people recognize that physical abuse is wrong but the other types of abuse aren’t really understood, she said. “So I really appreciate that he’s bringing this story to light.”

There’s value in petitioning the government for a review of Workman’s case, Vansteenkiste added.

“Women are still being incarcerated for killing their abusive husbands and, still, we have judges who aren’t appropriately educated about domestic abuse… so this enforces the fact that our legal system needs training so they can understand abuse.”

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